Jake Wilkinson (Jonathan Taylor Thomas) is an 18-year-old attending the (fictional) Palisades Academy in California. He has not been home to Larchmont, New York for any holidays since his mother died and his father remarried shortly after. A few days before Christmas Eve, his father offers to give him his vintage 1957 Porsche 356 if he is home by 6:00 p.m., Christmas Eve for Christmas dinner. Initially, Jake had traded in his airline ticket to New York City for two tickets to Cabo San Lucas to take his girlfriend, Allie Henderson (Jessica Biel), who is also from New York, but she declines. Jake reconsiders following the deal with his father and trades the tickets back in for New York and Allie agrees to ride with him.
Eddie Taffet (Adam LaVorgna), Jake's nemesis and rival for Allie's affections, and his trio of goons leave Jake in the desert dressed as Santa Claus as a punishment for not getting an exam cheat sheet (a deal Jake was going through with that Eddie secretly sabotaged on purpose). While Jake is stuck in the California desert, Eddie ends up giving a reluctant Allie a ride to New York after she thinks Jake has bailed on her once again.
Jake has only three days to make it to Larchmont if he wants the car. He stumbles upon Nolan (Andrew Lauer), a simple-minded thief who is driving stolen kitchen goods to his dealer near New York. A police officer named Max (Sean O'Bryan) pulls them over in Red Cliff, Colorado for speeding, so Jake lies and says that Nolan is his elf, Snowpuff, and that they are donating the goods to the children's hospital. The police officer offers for them to join him. Max asks Jake to accompany him to North Platte, Nebraska and help him win his wife, Marjorie (Lesley Boone), back.
Allie and Eddie continue to head for New York. Allie convinces Eddie to stay the night at novelty hotel in a Bavarian village, the Amana Colonies in Amana, Iowa. Allie and Eddie are unknowingly standing beneath mistletoe when a news anchor is reporting live. Jake sees Allie and Eddie kiss whilst waiting at the bus station in Nebraska.
Jake wants to stop at the Bavarian village and develops a scheme to convince the bus driver. He obtains a cooler, a slab of meat, writes Allie's name and address on the cooler, and then convinces the whole bus that the cooler needs to be delivered to a little girl at the hospital in the Bavarian village for a transplant. After Allie lets Jake into the room, Eddie walks out of the shower in only a towel and Jake assumes he has slept with Allie. Jake and Allie make up until Jake blurts out that Eddie prevented him from getting home by 6 p.m. Upset that Jake cares more about the car than her, Allie storms onto the bus and takes Jake's seat.
Jake and Eddie drive off. Eddie suddenly becomes jealous realizing that Jake will not only get Allie, but also the Porsche, throws Jake out of his car somewhere in Wisconsin. Jake decides to enter a Santa Claus race for a chance to win a $1,000 prize to buy an airline ticket to New York. Eddie is arrested after insulting two cops policing the race dressed as Christmas trees (possibly doing more than that). While registering for the race, Jake meets a nice man named Jeff Wilson, who he barely beats in the race. But on his way to the airport, the taxi driver informs Jake that Jeff is actually the mayor of the town who usually wins the race every year and uses the prize money to buy turkeys for the needy. Jake feels bad, and gives the money to the Mayor.
Jake talks to his sister, who arranges for an airline ticket for Jake from Madison, Wisconsin. The airline refuses to allow Jake to board the aircraft because he has no photographic identification. Jake decides to stow away in a dog kennel on a cargo aircraft. From the airport, he hides on a train, tries to hitch a ride in a car, then steals a one-horse open sleigh from the local parade. When he reaches his street, he apologizes to Allie and they make up. Jake rides the sleigh home and arrives at 5:59 p.m. Jake intentionally waits until after 6 p.m. to go inside so that he will not arrive in time to get the Porsche. When Jake's father offers him the Porsche anyway, he still refuses. Jake finally accepts his stepmother. The Wilkinsons and Allie get in the sleigh just as the parade arrives and join the procession.Jonathan Taylor Thomas as Jake Wilkinson
Jessica Biel as Allie Henderson
Adam LaVorgna as Eddie Taffet
Gary Cole as Mr. Wilkinson
Eve Gordon as Carolyn Wilkinson
Lauren Maltby as Tracey Wilkinson
Andrew Lauer as Nolan
Sean O'Bryan as Officer Max
Lesley Boone as Marjorie
I'll Be Home for Christmas made $3.9 million in its opening weekend, finishing at 6th at the box office. At the end of its run, the film grossed $12 million, against its $30 million budget, making it a box office bomb.
The film received mostly negative reviews from critics. Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a score of 23% based on 43 reviews, with an average rating of 4/10. The critical consensus is: "Neither parent nor child will find any merriment in this mess."
Roger Ebert described the film as Pleasantville made from "anti-matter", saying the film is about "People who seem to be removed from a '50's sit-com so they can spread cliches, ancient jokes, dumb plotting and empty cheerful sanitized gimmicks into our world and time." He gave the film 1 out of 4 stars. Christopher Null called the film "surprisingly engaging" and gave it 3 out of 5 stars.